LOS ANGELES — UCLA senior linebacker Eric Kendricks’ DNA was all over the team’s victory in their opener in Virginia. There was the interception he returned for a touchdown, the fumble he caused, which was returned for a touchdown, and those 16 tackles.
Fingerprint, as well as fingertip, evidence would show sophomore linebacker Myles Jack also had a big hand in that victory. There was that sideline-to-sideline behavior in making 10 tackles and the fourth-down play where he extended to tip away a pass with the Cavaliers on the UCLA 17-yard line trailing by eight.
Those were things missing in the Bruins’ laborious 42-35 victory over Memphis on Saturday. Kendricks said he was “unsatisfied” with his play. Jack said, “I can’t speak for other guys, but I missed tackles.”
Told about his linebackers’ unhappiness, defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich said, “I love it.”
There are many moving parts to the UCLA defense. A big cog is Kendricks and Jack, and the impact plays they can provide.
They share the marquee billing, though Kendricks would rather his name carried an “also starring” credit. Jack, like it or not, has the leading-man role. What they can give the Bruins are game-changing moments, something that was on display in Virginia and missing in action at the Rose Bowl on Saturday.
“Having guys who can move in space, in this day and age of college football, is very helpful,” said Coach Jim Mora. “You don’t have to go small when you have some guys with size who can run like they do.”
Ulbrich is reluctant to place too much on Kendricks and Jack, saying, “All 11 guys who cross the line are all impact players. We have become that talented.” But it is hard to not single out the two.
“It’s a great luxury to have two guys with that type of athleticism, who are relentless in pursuit,” Ulbrich said.
Relentless wasn’t the word against Memphis. Allowing a nondescript team to roll up 35 points and 469 yards just by using a little misdirection was unsettling in the UCLA locker room heading into a game at Texas on Saturday.
“I have to hold myself to a standard,” Kendricks said. “I watched film and tried to anticipate what was going to happen. Sometimes it’s better to react based on what you see rather than what you know from films.”
Missed tackles almost seemed part of the UCLA game plan.
“You start trying to take shots in the open field,” said Jack, who had six tackles against Memphis. “You can’t take that big hit in the open field. You have to wrap up. The priority is to take the guy down.”
The burden, Kendricks said, rests with the Bruins’ top two linebackers.
“Me and Myles have to set standards,” Kendricks said. “We know that we’re in the spotlight. We’re being looked on to do things. We accept that.”
The responsibility does seem to be in good hands.
These are two widely different personalities, yet their common traits intersect on the field.
Kendricks runs from publicity almost as fast as he runs to ballcarriers.
“It used to bother me when I was coming out high school, that there would be 100 guys who people said to be better than me,” Kendricks said. “I learned to embrace it.”
Meanwhile, he gets the big brother treatment from Jack.
“His sense of anticipation is ridiculous,” Jack said. “I’m in awe of the way he studies film and his instincts on the field.”
Kendricks managed to keep his anonymity even after leading the Pac-12 in tackles as a sophomore in 2012. Still, teammates noticed the work.
“You can feel his energy,” said cornerback Ishmael Adams. “It makes you want to get in there and hit somebody.”
Kendricks was on his way to defending his tackles title last season, but back, shoulder and ankle injuries slowed him. He still finished third in the Pac-12 despite sitting out two games and parts of two others. Not that he cared.
“He doesn’t want any attention,” Mora said. “He just wants to play ball. Myles is more gregarious.”
Jack was already an impact player at linebacker when he was tossed in the backfield last season. His cameo appearances at running back produced seven touchdowns.
The media glare was inescapable and the 19-year-old has had to learn to deal with it.
Early in training camp, he would chide quarterback Brett Hundley after breaking up passes during drills. “You’re going to get your running backs injured,” Jack would jokingly holler.
Ulbrich said at the time, “Myles is finding his voice. That’s good up to a point.”
That line was crossed later in camp, when an altercation with a lineman resulted in Jack being kicked out of practice.
“By the time I got back to my dorm room, it was blowing up everywhere,” Jack said.
He has relished the center-stage moments at times, but admits, “The attention can be uncomfortable. I’m young; I have had to grow up faster than I really want to just to make sure I act the right way in public.”
Mora said that Jack has settled down and has “gotten over the novelty of being ‘Myles Jack.’”
Still, teammates often start conversations about Jack with, “Myles is just Myles.”
And Adams enjoys those moments.
“He made a tackle in the backfield against Memphis and started mixing it up, like he was cooking,” Adams said. “Nothing too serious. He was just enjoying himself.”
That personality is something Kendricks has envied.
“I see him come every day and play like a kid,” Kendricks said. “There is so much passion and fun in how he plays.”
That, both said, was lacking on defense against Memphis and needs to show up in Texas.
“There were a lot of little mistakes we know we can correct,” Kendricks said. “You have to put your heart and soul into it.”
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